Community Connections Project Study Report

A young person in an art studio smiles and holds up their paint-covered hands
Family Day at Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, Virginia, part of a Community Connections project. Photo courtesy of Workhouse Arts Center

A brief history of community connections projects

In 2017, Creative Forces launched its inaugural community arts engagement program. The launch began with nine summits that brought military and arts communities together to explore the needs of the local military community. Attendees then discussed how community arts engagement could address these needs.

State art agencies and local partners hosted the summits in Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Washington state, and the National Capital Region (District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia). Each event provided an opportunity for networking and new relationships to form across sectors.

Creative Forces funded ten “Community Connections” projects to address the learnings and needs identified at the summits. These projects, designed to offer a range of arts engagement activities to military populations, took place from 2018 through 2020 near our existing clinical sites. The programs featured a range of activities, including visual and performing arts and creative writing workshops. Artists-in-residence, teaching artists, or creative arts therapists led each project’s activities.

Lessons learned

Program evaluation of the Community Connections projects allowed us to collect and retain learnings from these initial community-oriented efforts. 

Community Connections projects served military-connected people, including service members, veterans, families, and caregivers. Projects sought to improve health, well-being, and quality of life for participants and contribute to the learning goals of Creative Forces.

Partnerships are critical and worth the investment

Building strong partnerships takes time. They are crucial for meeting participants’ needs. Types of partners critical to the work include: 

  • veterans service organizations,
  • state or local arts agencies, and 
  • clinics

These partners provide clinical and community support, networking among arts, military, and clinical communities, and a platform for multi-directional referrals.

Community arts programs for military-connected people may not offer therapy, but program facilitators recognize that participants may face social, psychological, or physical challenges. Program facilitators benefit from support from mental health professionals who are either on-site or available when needed.

Ongoing engagement builds belonging and community

Programs with ongoing engagement build belonging and a sense of community. While there is a role for single events and brief activities, trust, personal growth, and relationship-building require continuity of engagement. It allows time for trust to develop, which supports authentic relationships, higher levels of engagement, and growth.

Program leaders and participants said individuals are more likely to engage in community arts programs when they establish trust with the leaders and other participants and develop relationships and social networks.

Many factors influence participation

Individuals have different motivations for engaging in the arts, such as developing artistic skills/identity, exploring personal experiences through art, socializing, or trying something new. Competing commitments and other concerns can interfere with ongoing engagement.

Building trust, relationships, and networks were reported as the most effective means of recruitment. Program staff also stressed the importance of creating a safe and welcoming environment, as well as a sense of belonging and ownership for participants. They recommended creating opportunities for people to “test the waters” through a single event or an open house. At some sites, inviting family or friends was helpful.

Programs benefit from participant leadership

Participant input is key to successful community arts engagement activities for military-connected populations. Input enhances cultural understanding and communicates respect for the target population.

Many programs ended up providing leadership opportunities for participants. This tended to occur as the program design matured, implementation stabilized, and participants’ skills and confidence grew. Program leaders saw value in including participants in decisions, recruitment, and instruction. Program leaders believe participant leadership minimizes gaps between the program design and what participants expect to gain from the program.

Understanding military culture is important

Participants placed high value on programs that invested in understanding military culture. The project directors and partner staff stressed that program leaders, teaching artists, and other staff should understand military culture to serve the target population well. Participants appreciated staff members who understood their experiences and challenges. They valued this understanding, as reflected in their comments. Partners used various strategies to improve their understanding of military culture. They received advice from military personnel and creative arts therapists who work with military-connected individuals.

Sustainability requires planning

Planning for sustainability should start at the beginning of each project. Sustaining or scaling a program requires considerable planning, particularly for new programs.

The lead organizations for the Community Connections projects were highly committed to serving military-connected populations through arts engagement. Where staff time and resources were limited, this personal commitment sustained the staff members who were responsible for the program. However, some acknowledged it would be difficult to sustain the same level of work over longer periods of time and in the face of competing demands. Project directors noted that long-term funding, as well as strong partnerships, are needed to make programs sustainable.

Balancing person-centered programming with evaluation needs can be challenging

Program partner personnel embraced the idea of program monitoring. They thought that data on results would show the benefit of community arts for military-connected individuals. This would help them understand and better serve this community and make their programs more effective.

Although the Community Connections partners were committed to the idea of evaluation, lack of expertise, capacity, or resources hampered data collection and evaluation. Partners were worried about relying on participants for evaluation data. People who work with military-connected individuals have a perception that this group is studied often. They believe it’s important for participants to feel valued for being there, not just for their data. This perception was echoed by a few of the participants who were interviewed.

About the report

The full Community Connections report shares results from a study completed by an outside evaluation team. The report details how partners carried out the Community Connections projects and what the results were. Recommendations for enhancing community arts engagement programs are also included. These recommendations also provide insights to help plan future investments for similar programs.

The results of the study showed benefits to military-connected individuals. The study reports that participants gain better mental health and quality of life. Participants also feel more connected to their community, improve their artistic skills, and feel more empowered.

Organizations also benefited in ways that will support the expansion of future services. They noted they are committed to helping military-connected individuals and have improved their ability to serve them. Organizations also reported improved communication with clinical providers and collaboration with arts organizations. Additionally, they increased community awareness of the benefits of the arts.

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